AS CHINA’S economy slows, and labour-intensive manufacturing moves elsewhere trying to find cheaper workers, anxious and angry staff is becoming ever bolshier. Based on China Labour Bulletin, an NGO in Hong Kong, the quantity of strikes and labour protests reported in 2014 doubled to over 1,300. During the last quarter they rose threefold year-on-year, with factory workers, taxi drivers and teachers country wide demanding better treatment.
The authorities often respond with heavy-handedness: rounding up activists and crushing independent labour groups. But in areas, they also have begun to give state-controlled unions more capacity to put pressure on management. Officials, usually in cahoots with factory bosses, are starting to find out a desire to placate workers, too.
Independent unions are banned in China. Labour organisations need to be connected to the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), whose constitution describes the working class as “the leading class of China” but which normally sides with management. Lately, officials have stepped up efforts to unionise workforces, especially in privately run factories where they fear not enough unions might encourage independent ones to grow. But official unions have largely refrained from baring any teeth.
New regulations within the southern province of Guangdong, the place to find most of China’s labour-intensive manufacturing and several from the strikes (see map), might commence to change that. They codify the right of workers to take part in collective bargaining; which is, to barter their regards to employment through representatives who speak for all employees. The principles make use of the term “collective consultation”, which in Chinese sounds less confrontational than the usual term. But, on paper a minimum of, they offer the official unions greater power to initiate negotiations with management as an alternative to, as before, confining themselves largely to organising leisure activities and hoping that workers stay docile.
Meng Han, strike security companies in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, will have welcomed a more proactive approach by official-union leaders. He was launched this past year after nine months in jail when planning on taking matters into his hands and leading a protest sought after of higher wages. “China’s unions tend not to participate in the workers,” Mr Meng complains. The latest rules is needed satisfy his main demand, that workers like him who definitely are hired on short-term contracts through employment agencies should be paid similar to permanent staff (they commonly are paid much less). The regulations say there must be “equal purchase equal work”.
Guangdong’s aim is just not to embolden workers, but to keep their grievances from erupting into open protest that may turn versus the government. Huang Qiaoyan of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou says businesses in Hong Kong, which control many of Guangdong’s factories, opposed the newest rules, fearing they would lead to even higher labour costs. Wages are already rising fast, partly as a result of shortage of migrant labour. However the government is less inclined than it once was to heed such concerns. It really has been raising minimum-wage levels, one of its aims being to upgrade Guangdong’s industry by pushing out low-end, polluting factories. The new rules might help make this happen too.
Employers have won some concessions. Drafters from the new rules dropped provisions which may have fined companies for resisting workers’ tries to bargain collectively and which could have banned the firing of employees for work stoppages resulting from management’s refusal to barter with workers’ representatives. The regulations require over fifty percent of your company’s workers to support collective-bargaining before such action may start. Drafts had called for thresholds of just one-third or less.
The regulations effectively shut the doorway to the kind of spontaneously-formed teams of workers that have often taken the lead in Guangdong’s strikes. Employees must channel str1ke requests for consultation through unions underneath the ACFTU.
But through taking on greater responsibility for handling disputes, the ACFTU is also dealing with higher risk, says Aaron Halegua of New York University. He believes workers will likely step-up pressure on the official unions to represent them better; if they fail, workers could activate the unions along with factory bosses. The brand new rules stop far lacking permitting strikes, but Mr Meng, the security guard, sees a hint of change. Not long ago, he says, a lot of people were afraid even to mention the saying. “Now it is actually used all the time. To ensure is some progress.”